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The title track on Ty Segall's latest, Manipulator, which is in my opinion the best track on the album, encapsulates latter-day Segall: what he's become since his 2011 breakthrough Goodbye Bread, and the steps he's taken since then to present this expansive bid for glory, from his incendiary 2012 venture Slaughterhouse to folksy Neil Young in 2013's Sleeper. In the song's second half, the lead guitar line blazes through hills of feedback and Segall clocks into his devilish falsetto while everything else tumbles down; it's wild and abrupt yet it never loses its footing. The song kills and is a close summation to what all of Manipulator sounds like: an album of logical imbalance where all the constituent parts push everything around to make something altogether superb.
Manipulator is a call-to-arms, a delightful, unabashed glam rock album that never relents across its 55 minutes. It's the sound of Tony Visconti-produced albums from the 1970s, recalling Bowie, T. Rex and Iggy Pop (glitter, makeup, and all); an up-to-date Elephant 6 album and, more recently, a buffed-up Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Basically, this 17-song set is all open arms, which plays well to his strengths as a guitarist and songwriter, though, admittedly, the result is both satisfying and frustrating.
Let's start with the good stuff. Aesthetically, the title track is all about the leading man: massive organ, crunchy guitar, crazy rhythms, and that sparkling guitar riff that bursts open at the chorus. The difference from his other outings, besides that riff that takes you straight back to the days of peace signs and stoner festivals, is the clarity of the production. This transforms Manipulator from an album full of lo-fi dynamics to an album that can contrast dirty lines and rocketing-to-the-sky guitar solos and still play well with each other due to Segall's wild imagination (here's to you "Feel"). For most of us, it's not hard to like Ty Segall. He's a man clearly in a fit of inspiration that meshes together moments from his entire discography to create songs that are, honestly, better than most of what his contemporaries put out (a contemporary like Tame Impala, who are more psychedelic, but I think both of the band’s abilities to create a collage with classic sounds make it an apt comparison). "The Clock" weaves together sounds from his last solo efforts, the abrasive Twins and the timid Sleeper, and while it’s clearly indebted to hippie group Love, the addition of strings from this shaggy rock ‘n’ roller is a welcome texture. More head-turning moments include the jumbled chaos of “Feel” and “Susie Thumb”, where both start off as perfect slices of psych-pop before the guitars go for the throat. Now, Segall has been using this method for the past few years, giant jumps and leaps in songs, but he’s still at it nearly seven years later and, with the cleaner production, he’s clearly not messing around even when he sounds like it.
So, the album does have a lot going for it. Segall wrote these songs over the course of a year and then took them to the studio for a month, and the label he put into his only 2014 is clear since these are 17 thought out rock songs. The 55 minutes go by quickly thanks to his prolific songwriting skills, but Manipulator has its saggy moments. “Green Belly”, “Mister Man”, and “Who’s Producing You” come up short against the stronger tracks. And the sound does get repetitive about half way through, which doesn’t let me get lost in the album like I feel a longer album should allow, but some of that is due to its lack of cohesiveness, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. What makes this album good is that it feels like a well-built, well-controlled collection of songs, nothing else.
The image I get from Segall throughout Manipulator is a fun-loving mad scientist interested more in the journey than the destination. His Cheshire cat smile comes through in trivial things, like how the song “The Connection Man” is sequenced at the center of the album, connecting the first 8 tracks to the last 8, or how he shows off his high-pitched falsetto on “The Singer”. Even the album title, Manipulator, hints at what a band tries to do to their listener. The fake British accent also helps Segall feel more carefree, giving him a little more sass reminiscent of Bowie’s stage personas. Manipulator is him showing off all that he’s learned since he started in 2008 and then turning it up a couple more notches. It’s a sprawling, rousing thing where every guitar lick sparks and ignites and leaves its listeners bathing in the glow of rock, eyes closed, much like the cover.